Mitigating The Covid-19 Spike In Sabah

After what had appeared to be Malaysia’s success in containing Covid-19 infections in the country, new daily cases climbed back into the three-digit range since last week.

This can be seen in Sabah, especially the day before nomination on September 11.

On that day, Sabah recorded the highest infection rate from the Benteng Lahad Datu cluster with confirmed cases reaching 300 representing the highest jump in more than three months.

Although the Health Ministry director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah warned the reproduction number (Rt) in Sabah has remained above 1.0, this did not prevent candidates from campaigning throughout Sabah until polling day tomorrow (Sep 26).

To put it simply, Rt is the average number of people in a population who can become infected by a spreader. An Rt value of below 1.0 is generally considered safe as it shows that the outbreak is likely to peter out.

However, an Rt figure of above 1.0 means an outbreak is growing or even accelerating.

The election sees two major political coalitions, Warisan Plus which includes Pakatan Harapan (PH) parties on the one hand, and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) that includes Barisan Nasional (BN) and the federal ruling coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN), on the other hand, have been organising large scale gatherings to gain support among voters.

Since the campaign period kickstarted on September 12, many of the PH, BN and PN leaders from the Peninsula have flown to Sabah, giving support to their Sabahan counterparts.

This enhances the difficulty in applying physical distancing measures, especially when political stars like Chief Minister of Sabah, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and former Finance Minister, YB Lim Guan Eng appear in major gatherings.

Many political leaders stood side by side, without the minimum physical distancing of at least 1 to 2 meters apart. Their supporters also carried out campaign activities without applying physical distancing measures.

Judging by the pictures in social media, some of these political gatherings could have been attended by more than 250 attendees which violate the standard operating procedures (SOPs) during the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) period.

Even though the Rt figure for Sabah has fallen from 3.72 on Sep 8 to 3.16 on Sep 11, and thereafter to 1.70 as of September 13, this does not mean that the public can relax their guard.

A figure of 1.70 is still high which indicates that, on average, each infected person could spread the disease to 1.70 other people, who would then further spread the disease to others. Instead, they have to be mindful of the safety measures, particularly during polling day tomorrow.

Apart from the Benteng Lahad Datu and Tawau clusters, Laut and Pulau in the Kunak district have emerged as new clusters. Added to this has been the Selamat and Bakau cluster in the Semporna district.

As of Sep 21, there are 1,129 confirmed cases in total, including the Quarters cluster in Tongod. Sandakan is the sixth cluster newly discovered.

If Covid-19 cases continue to rise exponentially in Sabah, the government could reimpose the Movement Control Order (MCO) there as was the case at the early stage of the pandemic

This will pose further hardship to the citizens’ livelihoods and also the country’s economy.

It is quite a relief the Sabah election is in the final lap of wrapping up but the need to care about public health safety is still relevant during polling day and the post-election gatherings and victory parades by using more online engagements and outreach.

Social media engagements are cost effective and could also reduce the risks of local citizens being infected with Covid-19.

However, for those candidates who prefer to have face-to-face post-election gatherings and victory parades, they must strictly follow the SOPs by limiting it to 250 people in a gathering. It is even better if the candidates can go for small-scale political gatherings of 50 people, further minimising the risk of contracting Covid-19.

To control the crowd effectively, political parties may consider implementing an online registration system before letting the public to attend in person. This would reduce the risk of contagion by allowing for physical distancing measures to apply effectively and properly.

In addition, the public health authorities have to remain alert, to ensure that Covid-19’s transmission and infectivity links are broken and weakened. Sabahans also have to remain resilient, strong and disciplined by strictly complying with SOPs and staying at home if there is no reason to go out.

With the combined efforts by the political parties, public health authorities and voters, Sabah would be able to flatten the curve, further reducing the Covid-19 cases within the state.

* Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.